Civil Engineering vs Architecture – What’s the Difference?

Civil Engineering vs Architecture – What’s the Difference?


In this article we will explore a brief background to Civil Engineering vs Architecture, what Civil Engineering entails, the differences, similarities, and the relationship between these two disciplines so that you can have a better idea of who you should hire.

Level Engineering’s team of experienced Engineers and Architects are available and can assist you no matter what your building or infrastructure related enquiry is, or if you need an Engineering or Architecture solution,


In the modern world there are very few places on land that man has not left a footprint. In most cases this footprint has been influenced by a Civil Engineer and an Architect. These professions are intertwined, and their roles and responsibilities are often misunderstood and confused. With the international drive to mitigate the impacts of climate change and achieve greater environmental sustainability in the construction industry, these professions create one of the largest impacts on our planet as they are responsible for specifying vast quantities of materials for the built environment.

Civil Engineers and Architects offer a range of services. This article describes these professions at a high level and gives a general view on Civil Engineering vs Architecture. The descriptions used to describe this industry may vary in different states and parts of the world.

In order to understand how these professions differ today and who you should hire, one should have a basic appreciation for where they come from.

Brief History of Civil Engineering and Architecture

Civil Engineering has been around since City-States were built around 5000 years ago. Civil Engineering led the development of human society as they designed-and-built infrastructure to support civilians. These early builder-engineer-architects ‘designed’ by copying existing structures, using available materials and experimenting with small changes during construction to gradually increase the scale of projects.

Early Civil Engineering

Civil Engineering began to diverge with progression of applied mathematics and physics, the industrial production of materials such as concrete and steel, and the rapid growth of human populations in denser cities in around the 18th century. This resulted in the establishment of professions such as architects, civil engineers (a subset of Civil Engineering), structural engineers and mechanical engineers to cope with the complexity of public infrastructure requirements.

Modern Civil Engineering

In modern society with the accelerating development of technology, materials and construction process, Civil Engineer are continuing to diverge from ‘generalists’ to ‘specialists’. Today they tend to offer expertise in specific materials such as steel, steel reinforced concrete, concrete roads and timber or infrastructure types such as bridges, dams, roads and buildings. They may design other infrastructure projects such as concrete roads and pipelines or they may offer specialist services such as a forensic engineer. Understanding the type of Civil Engineer that is needed is an important step for architects and clients.

Modern Civil Engineers vs Modern Architects

Architects are typically trained and can work as ‘generalists’. There are a few specialist architectural fields such as landscape architecture. Architects and architectural firms may specialize in building types such a residential building, heritage buildings and commercial buildings.

What is a Civil Engineer?

Civil Engineers typically design and provide quality assurance during construction of the infrastructure that people use. This infrastructure includes bridges, roads, water systems and buildings. They can work as:

  • Designers
  • With contractors or developers for design-and-build projects
  • With suppliers offering premanufactured products such as precast structural concrete systems, and as
  • Project management

Civil Engineering is the overarching name given for several fields. The most common disciplines are:

  • Structural Engineer: ‘above ground’ building structures such as residential buildings, commercial building, industrial buildings, high rise, bridges, dams etc.
  • Civil Engineer (a subset of Civil Engineering): ‘below” ground’ infrastructure such roads, sewer pipelines, water pipelines, stormwater pipelines and earthworks
  • Geotechnical Engineering: typically assessing the integrity of soils and design soil improvement solutions
  • Transport Engineering: transport planning and modelling
  • Highway Engineering: roads, highway design and stormwater services

Multiple Civil Engineers are often needed to design and resolve the various components of a project. Environmental engineering is usually integrated as a specialist field within the above disciplines.

How do Civil Engineering Designers Work?

Civil Engineering designers (and Architects) work to a standardized Design Process. This Process divides their role between pre-construction phases and the construction process. A Civil Engineer’s role during these phases is different.

How do Civil Engineers Work Before Construction Starts?

During the pre-construction phases, Civil Engineers are required to mathematically model infrastructure to ensure compliance with building codes and standards in each state and country. This is typically done in engineering firms, with civil engineering technicians, using computer aided design to reasonably predict and model the appropriate forces a structure must resist, understand the load paths created by forces and design infrastructure to resist these estimated applied loads. They then produce drawings for a contractor to price before construction begins.

How do Civil Engineers Work During Construction?

Civil Engineers work in various roles during the construction of a project.

Civil Engineering designers typically complete most of their design work prior to a project moving onto construction sites. Their analysis is converted into drawings and specifications, an instruction manual of sorts, for contractors to build from. Civil Engineers oversee an entire construction process and verifying their design assumptions by visiting construction sites. This is for quality assurance, to verify that builders building to building codes, to assess public safety and to make changes if necessary or required by the client. They also take legal responsibility by signing-off their designs once built by contractors.

Civil Engineering designers may also administer construction contracts during construction. This is more common with civil engineers rather than structural engineers. Alternatively Civil Engineer construction managers administer construction contracts, and co-ordinate contractors and design teams for major works and complex projects.

Civil Engineers can also work under contractors for design-and-build services and suppliers offering pre-manufactured systems, may operate during both design and construction phases.

What is the Relationship between Civil Engineers and Architects?

Civil Engineers and Architects are required to work hand in hand to meet the requirements of a construction project. This can be an easy process where both parties are open to consider the functional requirements, size and materiality of a design. This relationship can cause friction when these parties are not open to collaboration. A significant difference lies in who is the lead designer on a project.

Architects in Building Projects

Architects are usually the lead designer for projects where people occupy spaces. These projects can include building structure such as houses, museums and offices. The architecture deals with the form (shape), how the spaces are arranged, plans structures and types of materials (aesthetics). An Architect (principal agent) or specialist project manager usually adopts a construction manager role during building construction.

Civil Engineers in Building Projects

Civil Engineers take an architect’s design and analyzes it to find ways to make the construction practical, confirm suitable materials, evaluate the structural integrity and suggest modifications to the size of building structural elements. Civil engineering also deals with infrastructure around buildings to ensure that the structure is compliant with regulations and can tie into existing infrastructure.

Civil Engineers in Large Infrastructure Projects

A Civil Engineer is usually the lead designer for large scale infrastructure that is informed by the efficiency of the structural materials suitable for the project. This may be a bridge, dam, harbor, highway or pipeline. Civil Engineers can also manage economic aspects of the projects such as the tender and contractual claims. In these types of projects Architects may assist the Civil Engineers for aesthetic support in areas occupied by people. A Civil Engineer construction manager or specialist project manager is usually used to manage the professional team and construction.

What is the Difference between Civil Engineering vs Architecture?

These are the main difference between these professions:

  • Architects design the external form (shape), how the spaces are arranged, spatial functionality and choose the aesthetics of building.
  • Engineering analyzes buildings and site layouts, asses how to make the construction possible and design the details of how the infrastructure fits together.
  • Architects choose material types and material aesthetics in buildings.
  • Civil Engineers analyze and specify material properties and how to build with these materials.
  • Architects use empirical design methods based on tables and simple rules in building standards.
  • Engineering uses rational design processes, advanced mathematics and computer design skills to design how infrastructure resists the forces of nature.
  • An architect is commonly the lead designer in buildings occupied by humans.
  • Civil Engineers are lead designers for large scale infrastructure projects driven by the efficient form and structural materials.
  • Civil Engineer sign-off completion of their designs to verify that they are safe and compliance with regulations.
  • Architects do not sign off completion of their designs for safety.
  • An Architect typically project manages building projects.
  • Civil Engineers project manage large scale projects.

What Similarities do Civil Engineering and Architecture share?

These are some similarities between Civil Engineers and Architects:

  • Architects and Civil Engineers provide essential services designing and managing the construction of buildings and infrastructure for society.
  • Both Civil Engineering and Architectural professions need a strong spatial awareness, critical thinking, practical design skills and an appreciation for economics.
  • They should have good writing, sketching and 3D visualization skills and often use computer aided design and computer skills to communicate ideas and instructions.
  • Engineering and Architecture require licenses to operate and are overseen by regulatory bodies.
  • Civil Engineering and Architecture create some of the largest impacts to the planet and consequently carbon footprints as they are responsible for specifying vast quantities of materials for the built environment.


No matter what your building or infrastructure related enquiry is, or if you need an Engineering or Architecture solution, Level Engineering’s team of experienced Engineers and Architects are available and ready to assist you.

Contact us today.

Picture of Scott Zurn, P.E.

Scott Zurn, P.E.

Founder and CEO of Level Engineering & Level Design Partners. With more than 4 decades of experience, Scott Zurn has contributed to all aspects of the building industry, serving both public and private sectors. He’s achieved tremendous success in commercial and residential markets, held leadership roles such as building official, city engineer, and director for local governments, and accomplished hundreds of millions of dollars in successful commercial building and civil infrastructure as a designer, project manager, and leader. As the Founder of the Level brand, Scott is dedicated to ensuring the entrepreneurial success of design professionals, as well as creating positive environmental impacts through design work. Read Scott’s full bio here.

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